U.S. starts to clean up Agent Orange in Vietnam

Posted on August 9, 2012

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Vo Thi Thuy Nga, 24, left, and her uncle Vo Duoc sit in their house near a former U.S. military base in Danang, Vietnam, where Agent Orange was stored during the war.

DANANG, Vietnam — Vo Duoc fights back tears while sharing the news that broke his heart: A few days ago he received test results confirming he and 11 family members have elevated levels of dioxin lingering in their blood.

The family lives in a two-story house near a former U.S. military base in Danang where the defoliant Agent Orange was stored during the Vietnam War, which ended nearly four decades ago. Duoc, 58, sells steel for a living and has diabetes, while his wife battles breast cancer and their daughter has remained childless after suffering repeated miscarriages.

For years, Duoc thought the ailments were unrelated, but after seeing the blood tests he now suspects his family unwittingly ingested dioxin from Agent Orange-contaminated fish, vegetables and well water.

Dioxin, a persistent chemical linked to cancer, birth defects and other disabilities, has seeped into Vietnam’s soils and watersheds, creating a lasting war legacy that remains a thorny issue between the former foes. The United States has been slow to respond, but on Thursday the U.S., for the first time, will begin cleaning up dioxin from Agent Orange that was stored at the former military base, now part of Danang’s airport.

“It’s better late than never that the U.S. government is cleaning up the environment for our children,” Duoc said in Danang, surrounded by family members sitting on plastic stools. “They have to do as much as possible and as quickly as possible.”

The $43 million project begins as Vietnam and the United States forge closer ties to boost trade and counter China’s rising influence in the disputed South China Sea.

Although the countries’ economic and military ties are blossoming, progress on addressing the dioxin legacy has been slow.

Washington still disputes a claim by Hanoi that 3 million to 4 million Vietnamese were affected by toxic chemicals sprayed by U.S. planes during the war to eliminate jungle cover for guerrilla fighters, arguing that the actual number is far lower and other environmental factors are to blame for the health issues.

That position irks Vietnamese, who say the United States maintains a double standard in acknowledging the consequences of Agent Orange.

The United States has given billions of dollars in disability payments to American servicemen who developed illnesses associated with dioxin after exposure to the defoliant during the Vietnam War.

In 2004, a group of Vietnamese citizens filed suit in a U.S. court against companies that produced the chemical, but the case was dismissed, and the Supreme Court declined to take it up.

Over the past five years, Congress has appropriated about $49 million for environmental remediation and about $11 million to help people living with disabilities in Vietnam regardless of cause. Experts have identified three former U.S. air bases — in Danang in central Vietnam and the southern locations of Bien Hoa and Phu Cat — as hot spots where Agent Orange was mixed, stored and loaded onto planes.

The U.S. military dumped some 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides on about a quarter of former South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971.

The defoliant decimated about 5 million acres of forest — roughly the size of Massachusetts — and another 500,000 acres of crops.

The war ended April 30, 1975.

The country was then reunified under a one-party Communist government. After years of poverty and isolation, Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations with the United States in 1995.

Mike Ives

Strategic US clean-up in Vietnam

BANGKOK – A US$49 million US government effort begins this week to cleanse deadly Agent Orange herbicide from a former air base in Danang, central Vietnam, where Americans stored, loaded and washed chemical weapons while using the toxic defoliant during the Vietnam War. The project will be launched on Thursday and is headed by Vietnam’s Defense Ministry and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

“It’s a ground-breaking effort between the governments of the US and Vietnam for a project which will clean up all the dioxin at the [Danang] airport remaining from the use of Agent Orange,” said Charles Bailey, director of the Washington-based Aspen Institute’s Agent Orange in Vietnam Program, in an interview on July 31 during a Bangkok stopover. He referred to the trip as a “historic opportunity”.

“At Danang, there are some 70,000 cubic meters [2.5 million cubic feet] of contaminated soil that, over the next three years, will be cleaned up,” Bailey said. “This is the first of several major hot-spots.”

The cooperative effort comes amid a US policy “pivot” towards Asia where Washington bids to shore up and build new alliances to counterbalance China’s rising influence in the region. China and Vietnam are locked in a diplomatic disagreement over contested territories in the South China Sea and Vietnam is known to be keen to expand strategic relations with the US, including greater access to sophisticated US weapons and military equipment. In recent years, Hanoi has allowed US warships to dock at its ports, including at Danang.

Some see the joint clean-up as a step towards closer bilateral strategic ties. From 2007 to 2012, the US Congress appropriated $48.7 million – including $20 million in 2012 – to decontaminate topsoil, lakes and silt at former US bases in Vietnam. An additional $13.7 million will come from the Ford Foundation and other private organizations, plus the United Nations, Vietnam and other countries. Danang will cost at least $43 million to clean. The full list of sites requires an additional $107 million, Bailey said.

Americans, Vietnamese and others are believed to have suffered deformities, diseases or death from dioxin and other herbicides, which the Pentagon used to clear jungles so Vietnamese communist soldiers could more easily be spotted, bombed, or deprived of crops and territory. [1]

Danang, America’s biggest air base during the Vietnam War, is one of the worst cases. Agent Orange was stored there in steel barrels, loaded onto warplanes, and washed out of the returning planes’ spray tanks. USAID awarded the clean-up contract to Massachusetts-based TerraTherm Inc, Bailey said.

Vietnamese officials have long sought to internationalize the issue and condemn the defoliant’s main producer, Dow Chemical, including at the ongoing 2012 London Olympic Games.

“The Dow Chemical Company is one of the major producers of the Agent Orange, which has been used by the US Army,” wrote Hoang Tuan Anh, Vietnam’s Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism, in a letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on May 2.

“Eighty-million liters were sprayed over villages in the south of Vietnam over 10 years, from 1961 to 1971, destroying the environment, claiming the lives of millions of Vietnamese people – and leaving terrible effects on millions of others who are now suffering from incurable diseases – and some hundreds of thousands of children of the fourth generation were born with severe congenital deformities,” he wrote.

“We think that the acceptance of IOC for Dow sponsorship was a hasty decision,” the minister said.

In 2009, the US Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Vietnamese to hold Dow Chemical and Monsanto liable for birth defects allegedly linked to Agent Orange. The US Veterans Administration, however, paid billions of dollars to Americans involved in the Vietnam War who later suffered illnesses suspected of being caused by dioxin.

In 1994, retired US Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr said in an interview he ordered millions of gallons of Agent Orange to be sprayed in Vietnam and would do so again, even though he later believed the dioxin caused his son to die from cancer. Zumwalt’s son was a patrol boat commander in the Mekong River delta near Saigon when Agent Orange was being sprayed in the area.

“At the time we didn’t know it was carcinogenic. The chemical companies that made it knew. But they told the Pentagon it was not,” Zumwalt said. “Even knowing it was carcinogenic, I would use it again. We took 58,000 dead. My hunch is it would have been double that if we did not” spray, Zumwalt said, referring to the war’s toll on Americans.

Today, Vietnam’s hospitals and museums display jars stuffed with large fetuses that show birth defects such as two heads on one body, limbs sticking out of torsos, and other mutations.

Hanoi’s communist regime, and some US scientists, blame Agent Orange.

“The Vietnam Red Cross has said about 4.5 million [Vietnamese] people were affected, including 150,000 children,” but estimates vary, Bailey said.

The US sprayed land where an estimated five million Vietnamese lived, and also poisoned Laos along its border with Vietnam, and around US bases in the Philippines and Thailand. The war ended in 1975 when the US and its collaborators in South Vietnam lost, allowing North Vietnam to reunite the Southeast Asian nation.

Richard S Ehrlich

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